The extremely rare vaquita, a small porpoise, drowns in gill nets intended to catch totoaba, whose swim bladders are worth thousands on the Chinese market. Photo: Flip Nicklin / Minden Pictures / National Geographic Creative

By Rachael Bale
10 January 2016

(National Geographic) – Just last week, a friend at the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) emailed me to ask if I’ve ever written about the trafficking of totoaba swim bladders, adding that she’s been working on vaquita conservation in the Gulf of California.

Totoaba? Vaquitas? These were animals that definitely hadn’t been on my radar. Totoabas are large, rare fish found only in the Gulf of California, and it turns out that their swim bladders—the organ that helps them float—is in high demand in China for soups and medicines. Demand is so high that a Mexican fisherman can make more than a month’s salary if he sells just one to a trafficker (to say nothing of how much that trafficker makes when he sells it to a customer).

And then there’s the vaquita. It’s an adorable little porpoise on the verge of extinction. That’s because vaquitas are getting caught in nets used illegally to catch totoaba. National Geographic actually wrote about quest to save them in 2014.

Over at NOAA, they’ve been studying how to keep these species alive. But it turns out totoaba and vaquitas aren’t just on NOAA’s mind. Today the Environmental Investigation Agency, a UK-based NGO, released a briefing called “Dual Extinction: The illegal trade in the endangered totoaba and its impact on the critically endangered vaquita.”

No one’s sure how many totoaba are left, but it’s clear they’re endangered. A century ago they were fished heavily to meet demand for swim bladders in both China and the U.S. But their population dropped, and fishing them was banned in 1975.

Totoaba are now at risk from illegal fishing. Nor does it help that the Colorado River, where they go to spawn, has become so salty because of water diversion that breeding is hard for them.

Poachers use gill nets to catch the fish, which can grown more than six feet long and weigh more than 200 pounds. Gill nets are literally walls of netting dropped down into the ocean to trap fish. But they also trap all kinds of other marine life, including non-target fish, dolphins, sea turtles—and vaquitas. […]

“The vaquita’s only hope for survival is that gill nets are permanently removed from its entire range in the Gulf of California,” said EIA researcher Clare Perry, echoing NOAA’s recommendation. Last April, the Mexican government expanded its ban on gill net fishing in the gulf to try to save the species. [more]

Demand for Fish Bladder May Wipe Out World's Rarest Ocean Mammal

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